This one could have made up for a season of frustration for Lefty Driesell and Maryland.
But after pushing a seemingly cocky, overconfident No. 2-ranked North Carolina to the edge, the Terrapins made three consecutive turnovers late in the game and watched what could have been a major Atlantic Coast Conference upset become a 59-56 North Carolina victory in Carmichael Auditorium.
"Their overconfidence showed," said Maryland forward Herman Veal, "and we almost got them."
Leading, 48-47, with 5:50 to play, Maryland (14-8, 4-6 in the ACC) had the ball and was trying to run down the clock. Terrapin senior guard Reggie Jackson became trapped near the sideline between two defenders and tried to swing a bounce pass out to freshman Adrian Branch.
But Jackson, who played well in a reserve role, did not see that Branch had cut to the basket. Tar Heel guard Jimmy Black stole the pass and ran down court for an easy layup, giving North Carolina (19-2, 8-2) a 49-48 lead with 4:50 to play.
"It was a miscue that cost us the game," said Branch, who made eight of 12 shots and scored a game-high 20 points. "I had been playing the popout swing man the entire game--the guy who would come out and help in those situations. But we changed the offense, which put me underneath the basket as a post man. Reggie and I didn't communicate that clearly enough, and Black stole the pass."
After Black's layup, Maryland had a chance to reclaim the lead, but Veal had a pass--intended for Branch--stolen by Tar Heel forward Matt Doherty underneath the North Carolina basket. Black was fouled on the play and made two free throws with 3:09 remaining for a 51-48 Tar Heel lead. Eight seconds later, Doherty stole the ball from Branch, which helped North Carolina run off more time.
"We had 'em beat," said Maryland's Jeff Adkins, "but we panicked and tried to make things happen that weren't there."
Tar Heel forward James Worthy made four consecutive free throws and scored a goal-tending basket (against Veal) to negate desperate but accurate shooting by Pete Holbert, Adkins and Branch in the final 90 seconds.
The Terrapins were ahead most of the second half and could have taken a five-point lead if Veal (12 points off the bench) had made a short bank shot with 6:10 remaining. Instead, Mark Fothergill (team-high six rebounds) fouled out trying to rebound the missed shot, and North Carolina pulled to within 47-46 on the subsequent free throws by Sam Perkins.
The Terrapins were unhappy in defeat, but knew they had played well--especially considering they were without starting senior center Charles Pittman, who broke his left foot Tuesday during practice and is scheduled to be operated on Friday morning. Pittman is expected to miss the next three weeks' games.
"Our club played great," Driesell said. "If they're the No. 2 team in the country, we ain't far behind." The Terrapins, who shot 58 percent, made nine of their last 10 shots, but Carolina made eight of its last nine. "I really didn't know if we could play that well without Charles," Driesell said.
North Carolina Coach Dean Smith gave Maryland a backhanded compliment. "When you lose a star player," Smith said. "You tend to play great for one game. Usually, a team can band together and play out of its mind for one game. But the second game, they'll really miss Pittman.
Maryland certainly didn't appear to miss Pittman tonight, even though North Carolina sprinted to a 12-4 lead early. The cockiness Veal talked about surfaced immediately, when Carolina took bad, hurried shots and made careless turnovers.
Branch, with some truly spectacular offensive moves, kept the Terrapins close or ahead with every type of basket imaginable.
When the Tar Heels tried to counter by going inside to Perkins (one field goal, four points) and Worthy (three field goals), Maryland kept the 6-foot-9 players locked up with a triangle-and-two defense.
"This was the first time we've faced a triangle-and-two, and they did a superb job," Worthy said. Doherty scored a team-high 18 points, shooting mostly from the outside.